Short Fiction

Cano’vas

Cano’vas

An unofficial Warhammer 40,000 Short Story
Written by Chris A. M.
Reading Time: 22 minutes

Another assignment, another challenge. Lovely. 

I took my case from my desk and headed towards Research Pod 6, where recently O’Tsua’m had brought back some strange alien under isolation. A previously unknown xenos species, my favourite! Apparently the fio’gue’la who are usually assigned to the lower pods, had actually requested the move themselves. As much as mankind contributes to the Tau’va I would really love to work on one of those teams as a supervisor. Not because they need supervision, mind you, but because seeing the interactions of Gue’la with peoples that we have not encountered before would be such a treat. 

It was a short walk, second floor below the ground floor and up to the last pod. I pressed the notification dial, in case they were in the middle of an experiment, but they answered almost immediately. There were two of them: red faced and sweaty, draped in dishevelled uniforms, almost like they had been out for a run. They said ‘hi’, a word that has caught on around the city, but simply was a non-specific greeting used amicably. I responded in kind. These were two friends of mine from the same floor as me in my building – ‘a lovely couple’ – as other gue’vesa have said.

Also, for recording purposes I can confirm that they have filled out the appropriate files and have submitted them. Names: ‘Geni Trava, and Amanda Trava’. I will update their timecards myself. The Gothic presentation on the new system, I believe is tomorrow, and they put in extra hours today, so I will make sure they can leave work at the lab today.

It looks like the subject is resting for now in the private area. Will add to the log if anything interesting pops up.

End audiolog. 

+++

I waited, filling in a few files and checking over the notes the Gue’la had made. The ambient heat was a bit low, so I turned it up to a more comfortable standard, as supposedly the creature could survive even light chemical fires without much issue. One of O’Tsua’m’s bodyguards had tested that theory, but the subject seemed to have recovered fully during the journey back from Ke’lshan aside from a single missing limb. It was another two hours before the creature left and entered the main part of its glassy abode, rather standard looking in all my time studying alien biology: bipedal, soft skin, hair and teeth.

‘They… Looked… Tasty…’ She spoke Gothic! I could now see why the originally assigned team was Gue’la, but then it stepped out of cover to reveal itself: a rather unsettlingly proportioned, unclothed human-like body, rose coloured skin that was stretched across a single remaining five-fingered hand, two talon-like feet and a ghoulish face with sunken, glowing blue orbs lodged in her skull where eyes should have been. She had hair, although it seemed to have been burnt almost to the root. What was left draped down its shoulders in a fluorescent pink hue.

Disregarding her first words for the moment – after noting them in the log – I lept to the intercom and began to ask her questions in the best Gothic I could muster.

‘Hello. I apologise for the containment, but it is protocol. After a few days, assuming all goes well, you will be released. If you understand, please tell me.’

‘I am hungry.’

Noting a leer in my direction as she spoke, I concluded that this might be one of the more difficult subjects to interact with. She seemed to be very pertinent about maintaining their bodily functions – at least eating – so far.

‘Alright, what would you like to eat?’

She just stared for a moment, licking her lips and looking directly into my eyes. No apparent iris, didn’t seem to need to blink either. 

‘If you can understand me and could tell me what you would like to eat, I could procure it for you.’

‘Meat?’ She seemed uncertain when she spoke, a hazy ringing voice that seemed to echo even in a room which shouldn’t audibly echo. Perhaps it was some sort of internal feature that caused the reverberation.

‘Good! I will get you some food, let us hope that puts you in a bit more of a talkative mood!’ As I pressed the button to unseal the door to the pod, she gave me the strangest look. Confused, quite apparently, but there was also a hint of curiosity – something I would feel if I were in her situation, do doubt. Noted.

I took the largest meat slab available from the canteen, even cutting my lunch allowance in half as I added by’nim’ky for my own meal to the bag that I was bringing back to the pod. It was unprocessed meat, as I was not sure of the tastes or quantity that the subject preferred. Yet I was sure that it would be a learning experience for the both of us.

As I opened up the sliding door and re-entered the room, the subject was standing still, staring directly at me. I put the plastic wrapped meat onto the tray and tapped the screen to send it into the subject’s chamber. She unsurprisingly tore right into it, long needle-like teeth on display. What was surprising, however, was the consumption of the wrapping as well. I let out a small chuckle, but was quickly responded to.

‘Why do you mock me?’

‘Oh no, my apologies.’ She seemed to understand laughter, even with the obvious language barrier and lack of exposure. ‘I was just amused by the fact you ate through the wrapping. We usually wouldn’t when we eat. No mockery intended.’

This was the moment. Her eyes just then focused directly on me. Not with the leer of before, but with intrigue and contemplation. Maybe even some deep thought, in some language yet unknown. The promise of intelligence and understanding was the very first step towards the acceptance of the Tau’va; even if the first encounters fell on the battlefield against a swift and heavy defeat from Commander O’T’sua’m.

She picked the wrap out from between her teeth and continued to tear in, as my half rotaa report was due. I ate through what I could and filled in the reports, forgoing my break in order to focus on my work. Taking the readings from the hidden scanners, I placed my pad on top of the console and soldiered on, until I heard a strange tapping on the window. Looking up, I saw her trying to get my attention whilst pointing at the pad.

‘Oh, you want the pad?’

She nods.

‘What for?’

‘To read.’ 

‘Ah, alright give me a moment!’ I tried to dull the excitement in my voice.

I brought up some educational reading, using both Gothic glyphs and Tau’sia, although I hadn’t any expectation of fluency. With a tap of the panel, the tray passed into the chamber. She used her remaining digits to take the data-pad and place it on the ground.

It was then that a colleague of mine, Fio’Vre’Ak, made a surprise visit. He walked with his usual swagger, an imposing air of openness behind every step.

‘Sa’taa fio’faan, looks like you’re taking lunch at your desk again.’ 

‘My duties have just gotten interesting. She proves a promising candidate for integration into the Tau’va.’

‘Glad to hear it. Every time I visit, you seem certain to prove your es’shi’cha in earnest, and every time you have your datapads strewn about the desk or a meal waiting for you. Don’t overwork, you’ll do better rested and sharp.’

‘Right.’ I turned back to my work. The sound of a sigh punctuated his departure. A mutual understanding that we would talk later didn’t change his point though. She still prodded and dragged her finger across the screen, after being given no instruction on how to operate it, in fact. This would be another good thing to note down, a technological adaptability with tactile interface would mean no hardware adaptations would need to be made. 

It was only a few more minutes before she tapped on the window with a rather cheery smile. 

‘Done! It was… good.’

Having recovered the pad, it appeared she had not only read the educational work provided but also my notes. I downloaded and opened a translation dictionary, and passed the pad back. ‘Good to hear. Here is a Gothic to Tau’sia dictionary. While I get some tests done you can read through it and learn if you’d like.’ My suggestion was met with a smile at first, before it twisted to a sullen pout.

‘Could I make a request?’ 

‘Of course. As well as things are going, I don’t see any reason why not.’

‘Earlier… to your friend… you referred to me as “she”. That means something very different for me. Could you refrain from using it?’ This was as unexpected and intriguing as my oversight was clear. 

‘What would you prefer?’ 

‘It.’ 

This struck me in a way I hadn’t expected, objectification built into identity. A translation error perhaps? Further proof that there must be a language underneath. My shock must have been visible, as they continued with a question.

‘Is that okay?’

‘Of course… It is strange to hear though.’

‘Would you rather something else? I wouldn’t mind.’ 

‘I would rather know why. I would like to understand.’ They approached the glass between us and nodded in acknowledgement.

‘It’s hierarchic. Where I’m from, very few are referred to in that way, and I am considered the same as the furniture.’ 

This was the first hurdle, a major cultural difference that should be handled by the Water Caste. However, they were not present at that point in time.

‘So for me to be a “she”, I would have to be much more important. Why are you so concerned about calling me an “it”?’

I took a breath and thought back. Although it wasn’t my place to do so, explaining the matter in depth would be the only real way to make progress in the matter.

‘We are T’au. We have a philosophy which we refer to as the Tau’va.’

‘Oh, I think you mentioned that before. To your friend.’

‘That is right. Summarily, it is the belief that there is an ultimate societal foundation, which provides the needs of all those who are a part of it in a collective community. For us, it is difficult to see anyone as an “it”, because for us, every individual life is valuable.’ 

The subject frowned at my explanation. ‘I don’t quite understand. Rephrase it more simply?’

‘Everyone serves the Tau’va here. The skills and value everyone brings are combined together into the community. We all contribute, and we all benefit as a single whole. If you were to join the Tau’va, we would find what you are good at and enjoy. Then you would do that to help others, and they will do what they do to help you.’

‘So what do you do?’

‘I help study new species and help determine their compatibility and role for the Greater Good.’

‘You are studying me?’

‘At this moment. Do you understand now?’

‘I think. “It” isn’t acceptable, perhaps “They”?”

‘That will work, I’ll update the notes of that so that mistake doesn’t happen again. It is nearing the end of my shift, and to celebrate the success of today I am going to meet up with some friends. Would you like anything before I go?’

‘Just something to read.’

I lined up more dictionaries and Gothic-to-Tau’sia learning guides, as well as a handful of more poetic sources, for variety. The date-slate once again manoeuvred to the other side of the glass, and I handed the discussion over to the gue’vesa scientist Amanda, who had come to relieve me.

I took my leave.

That evening they were still on my mind. The shift had felt much shorter than normal and I wasn’t weary, but my need for a strong drink and the promise of good company drew me away from my es’shi’cha’. As blunt as he was about it Vre’Ak was right, if I can’t get work out of my mind even after a long day… 

The sky glittered like black sand littered with gemstones, under a layer of soft nightglow. It was the perfect backdrop to get lost in my own thoughts, as I travelled the well-lit roads towards the local bar. It was a short walk, but there was a wet film on the fio’tak of the ground from the cold wet air, which brought an unsteadiness between hoof and stone. 

Warm air struck at my senses as I passed through the open doorway. Soothingly low lighting filled the room and led the way to the table where my colleagues sat, looking eager for the night ahead. I decided not to make myself known until I sat down, much easier than greeting the crowd. However, I was only given a few short moments until Vre’Ak noticed me sit down and passed over a drink.

‘Sa’taa, I’m glad you could make it!’

+++

After a rough evening, I am making my way to the Lab. I should be taking over without issue, and I’ll review the notes when I get in.

So far the subject is showing a great adaptability, as well as ability to learn Tau’sia and grasp the concept of the Tau’va. We should have the biological analysis sorted by about half-way through my shift, so I can handle that and pass the notes along. 

I haven’t much more to say, so I will end the audiolog here and add to it later if needed.

+++

I pressed the notification dial, waiting for the shift change to be made official. It took a few moments longer than it should have, but the metallic drone of the door was a welcome sound to hear. There weren’t any issues, so I bid the other two researchers a good day and took my seat at the desk. 

The subject made their way to the window and tapped on the glass with a toothy smile, flaunting the paraphernalia that they had obtained since our last meeting. I thumbed through the notes and took notice of a few things that stood out: Subject was unresponsive, refused to answer and only spoke to ask for food or clothing on two occasions. Spent prolonged time fixated on Geni, did little else. Geni became flushed and unexplainably anxious, and was booked an appointment soon. Make note of it if you also experience it.

‘Do you like it?’ They seemed much chirpier this morning than the last, enrobed in antique patterns and silk that must have been given to them by the gue’la, who also seemed to have a unique over-interest in formal wear. 

‘Yes. It looks good on you. How did you sleep?’ 

‘Thank you for asking! I slept quite well. You are going to study me some more today?’

‘Yes. We have some analyses which I will be going over later on. Then we will have the por’el and someone from the Edification Corps to have a talk with you tonight.’

‘Okay! After I speak with them, will that mean I’ll be able to leave this lab? As nice as speaking to you through this glass, it is… actually quite lonely here.’

That factor hadn’t dawned on me until they said that. Loneliness. An enigma still not fully understood by Tau’faan, where it was known that auxiliary members of the Empire would exhibit varied and usually detrimental behavioural changes that would impair quality of life. A lack of togetherness that evades the T’au. It reminded me of a recent systems malfunction in which the lab doors were sealed, causing our team to be locked in the lab for around two days. Even without imminent danger, the day or two spent isolated caused much more stress to our Gue’vesa and Brachyura than me or Vre’ak. They were relieved when seeing others again, even though there was only a door separating them. 

‘I can let you out now if you would like. However, just into the testing area and not into the rest of the complex yet. Not until you talk with Por’el Kais later.’

They seemed startled at first, physically taken back when I suggested it, but with a resounding ‘yes’, they waited eagerly at the door. Firstly, I sealed off the door controls to the rest of the labs. Then I opened the door. They seemed to be hesitant at first, but curious. Outstretched talons scratched the sterile metal flooring as they slowly moved into the testing area. Their demeanour had changed again. They approached me, getting very close and feeling around the air just shy of my skin.

‘Are you alright?’ 

No response. The look in their eyes was the same as before. Gripping, curious. As if wanting to crack the secrets behind my eyes as much as I, theirs. They prodded me with the sharp tip of their finger nail, wide-eyed and waiting for me to react. 

‘If something is wrong, tell me.’

They took a few steps back and walked around the room, similarly toying with the lunch I brought with me today, and my now locked console, twitching and alert. Now that they were on this side of the window they seemed different. Physically shorter, their teeth were no longer daggered, and their features seemed more natural and smooth than before. Their missing arm had even begun to regrow. Staring into the blue discs of their eyes, they no longer looked sunken but wide and fearful.

‘Would you like me to close the door again?’

They thought about it. Pondered over it for around half a minute – noted – but shook their head. I calmly sat back at my desk and got on with my research. I was ahead on my work already, but I thought that the change of focus would allow them to open up again. It took them a while, but they did approach and stare over my shoulder at my notes. They even began to help, selecting the next section when I had finished filling the last. This lasted for a while.

‘You are… real?’ Their voice crackled, the echoing taint to the voice was much stronger now and made their speech hard to parse. 

‘Yes. I am real.’

‘You don’t… feel real.’

‘I can assure you-‘

They leaned in and licked across my face. Their tongue was coarse, and even drew a small amount of blood as sticky residue remained. Without thinking my hand darted across the panel behind me to the emergency call key but stopped just short. I had never seen behaviour quite like this before – I had to know more. 

‘You don’t taste real.’

‘I am real.’

Their brow furrowed as they stepped back skittishly. It seemed to be a much harder thing to grasp for them than it should be. I could only wait, regretting the minor breach of protocol that just occurred. 

‘Would you like to return to your area and for me to close the door again?’

‘N-no.’

Their discomfort was palpable, and it was almost suffocating. I was helpless to help, and somehow it just felt different than before. Accidental deaths, souring relations, species declared unfit for the Tau’va, these were all the worst parts of this job. Each instance was a scar and a learning experience, yet for reasons unknown I felt an especially strong pity for the alien.

‘H-hungry.’

They moved closer again.

‘What would you like? I can get someone to bring something. Quickly.’

‘No.’ 

I reached back for the emergency call button, but they stopped me – a steely grip around my wrist, twisting my arm away from the panel. I tried to say something, but looking into those eyes sapped my voice away. They pushed me into my desk chair and clambered on top of me, wrapping their arm and legs around me and burying their face into my shoulder.

Panic washed over me, as I tried to grab the tranquilliser from the bottom drawer of my desk, but I was stuck. They seemed to be almost unmoving, only rocking their head slightly from side to side. They were trembling. I could feel blood trickle down my side, as their nails dug in as they tensed up. I couldn’t do anything but wait, and think.

Time passed slowly but surely, but they remained unmoving. I did the same, treading the line to avoid harming or aggravating the subject. They began to leak, from their face onto my robe and chittered in an otherworldly language – still rocking back and forth – with intentions unknown. There was a bleep from my console, reminding me that the biological analyses were complete, but I ignored it.

I did, however, just manage to wriggle free my arm, and open up a few different linguistic algorithms to try and decipher what they were saying. Every clue would bring me closer to understanding the alien, without relying on a flawed language that neither of us spoke natively.

‘S-sorry.’ They looked up at me, they had been crying. If not crying, something similar as black ink bleed out of their eyes and stained skin and fabric alike. I didn’t know what to say at first, but they continued. ‘Hungry.’ 

‘Would you like to eat something?’

‘No.’

‘If you are hungry you should eat.’

‘Not that kind of hunger…’ 

I was clueless. I calculated what questions and could ask next, but whichever way I approached it the question always ended up the same. I had to know.

‘What kind of hunger?’

‘I hunger for connection. I’ve been too isolated for too long – I need something real. I get a little extreme sometimes when isolated like this.’

‘If you need help just ask.’

‘I am fine. I think… I just need this. Your warmth is nice.’

They went quiet. Still quivering, they got up and made their way back across the threshold. With a nod, they signalled to close the door. 

‘I am getting used to it… do not worry about me.’

All the progress we’d made seemed to slip through my fingers, as they refused to talk further or eat any food. Hopefully, the por’el would have better luck than I would. I spent the time combing religiously through all my notes, double- and triple-checking, making comments on all I had witnessed.

A sharp tone announced the time was up, as the por’el pressed the notification dial for the door. I stood, and passed over the case. I really did need the rest, so I headed back home.

‘See you tomorrow. I hope all goes well with the por’el.’

Their face was scarred into the back of my eyelids. Every time I laid in my bed and closed my eyes I could see them. I didn’t get a single moment of respite. They were a puzzle I needed to have, to solve, and to incorporate into the Greater Good. It didn’t take too long for the morning to come, and for me to request the test results and notes to be patched through to me before I left to get to my shift.

The notes were normal, simple updates on what was said. But my focus was drawn to Geni’s most recent report: ‘You are real,’ was the first thing they said when the gue’vesa had entered. This was followed by blank stares from the subject and the same odd behaviours from before. Geni had then left to resubmit the biological scans as the missing limb had regrown into some sort of crustacean-like claw. Even though the por’el had cleared them, the Charpactin had no effect on the subject, and they remained skittish. 

I checked the biological scans myself to see a note at front and centre. ‘Unknown anomalies in results. Resubmit scans.’ Their body was organless, just an empty void held together by vaguely defined bones and skin. My heart was racing, there was more to know, more to solve. They were a very particular piece missing in my thoughts, if I could only solve them…

It wasn’t quite my shift yet, but I packed up a few data-pads and changed into something clean before heading out the door. It would be interesting to observe the gue’la’s interactions with the subject. It was a chill, crisp morning, and a rather bright and cheery one as well. Looking around to see the many auxiliaries of our Commonwealth happily roaming the streets reinvigorated me. I would continue and get this job done. 

I walked in through the door to the lab to see a peculiar sight. A fireteam had pushed apart the tables and was having a meeting in the analytics lab, with some sort of leather clad gue’vesa giving them a brief, rattling off harsh High Gothic words. Nothing was cordoned off, so I decided it was best for me to get out of the way. I quickly picked up my pace; and rounded the corner towards the lab, quickly tapping the notification dial. There was no response.

My finger hovered over the button that would force the door open, but something didn’t feel quite right. I listened at the door, but couldn’t hear a thing beyond a dull, monotonous tap of something hard against the ground. It was eerie but not unexplainable. Maybe they were out to grab breakfast, or maybe both went to resubmit the scans.

My thoughts were cut short by the hurried patter of Fire Warriors coming down the hallway, clad in black armour with pale green markings. Not from any sept I knew of. 

‘Fio’la, do not respond. Do not hesitate. Turn around, go right down the corridor and return to the emergency assembly point. Now.’

I obeyed, but I looked over my shoulder as I ran. The Fire team was setting down explosives. What happened whilst I was gone? My weary legs still carried me as the sound of metal bursting open and the air boiling between pulse rounds echoed out. There was a shriek that made my guts roll and my body tense. I needed to know if they were alright. Against my better judgement, I turned around and headed back to the lab.

The Fire team had pushed into the room, and was focused on the enclosure. As I glanced through the open doorway, I saw a mess of flesh and sinew cast up every wall. The floor was steeped in a mix of blue and red viscera. The remainder of the fire team had their visors forward and trained upon the broken glass. Gory and sadistic, I saw the one of the gue’la – I couldn’t tell which – stripped bare and torn to shreds and splinters. I could barely keep in the horror as a photon grenade was chucked across into where the alien had been last time I saw them.

But before the grenade could detonate, like a bolt of purple lightning, something scurried across the wall towards me, over the head of the shas’la. Piercing white-blue flashes blinded me as something clamped down around my shoulder, digging in and bending the bones beneath. Yelling and screaming, I was dragged across the floor and pinned down around the corner. Face down, it tore across my back and cackled as nails pulled open my wounds. Their arms wrapped around me as the feeling of a cold wet tongue passed between my bones and tugged needily at my heart. As my senses dulled, I only felt a soft breath on my neck…

‘Thank you.’

+++

This is Por’el Dal’yth Kais. I am currently interviewing the last of the survivors of the incident. They seem thoroughly shaken up, as the lives of their colleagues – multiple research workers and security officers – were lost. 

Amanda Trava, Fio’Vre Kel’shan Akti, Fio’Vre Bork’an Eg’ha, Fio’Ui Kel’shan Vash, Shas’La Kvariam El’kai’aun, Shas’Ui Kvariam Basiin.

Many more were wounded in the explosion. The incident was caused by an alien who was recently brought into the laboratory for study. They proved dangerous, and forensics has established that they broke through a faulty electrical main, which then overheated and caused massive malfunctions in the environmental controls. The alien did not survive the meltdown. The attack appears to have been premeditated, as recordings show predatory behaviour and purposeful deceit.

Technical specs have been passed onto the Fio’O to make sure such a malfunction does not occur again, and the Edification Corps, currently at the station on other business, has kindly provided their medical staff for the rehabilitation of the survivors. For future reference, some of the survivors have opted for memory suppressants and regularly allotted therapy due to trauma or the loss of loved ones. This is an official notice of exemption on medical grounds if required. The list of those individuals has been attached.

I will additionally attach all the notes on the alien we have from the researchers Amanda Trava, Geni Trava and Fio’Vre Eg’ha. Although I expect that this species will be, very sadly, considered incompatible with the Greater Good. Future caution should be taken around them. Keep auxiliaries and any Tau’faan currently experiencing psychological issues away from these aliens. Report any strange thoughts or sensations to superiors so that they may contact specialists to deal with them.

Tau’va Ko’tash.

About the Author

Chris is a long-time fan of Warhammer 40,000 and an aspiring science fiction author. He grew up in a mixed household in England and has been interested in different cultures, beliefs and writings for my whole life because of it, which has thoroughly influenced his work. He found the hobby in 2016 at school and has since then made myself a self-proclaimed aficionado of the setting’s lore.